Interview with Isabelle Roger

Isabelle Roger
Isabelle Roger
Global Cotton Programme Manager

Leaders show that it can be done
Sustainable Cotton Ranking 2020 reveals significant progress made by big brands towards more sustainable cotton. What is also evident is that the divide is growing between companies that take their responsibilities seriously and the many laggard companies that do not. Isabelle Roger, Global Cotton Programme Manager of Solidaridad, one of the three organisations behind the ranking, speaks to Subir Ghosh about the issues that emerged from the 2020 ranking.

One cursory look at the findings, and what would you say has changed since the last Sustainable Cotton Ranking (SCR) 2017? Would you say the ground situation has improved?

What has definitely changed is that we see progress from some companies that were just starting the journey in 2017. Now we have 11 leaders; we had only five in 2017. Companies like Bestseller, Decathlon and Adidas have made significant progress. What is also striking is what has not changed. We still have companies that have not started the journey and are still in the red.

The subjects of sustainability / circularity seem to have taken centrestage in all textile-related discourse in the last 2–3 years (say, since SCR 2017). So, it is extremely surprising that so many companies should score zero in the latest rankings. How would you react to that?

Yes, it is surprising, and indeed shocking that three-quarters of sustainable cotton is sold as conventional cotton, and that farmers end up selling their cotton as conventional cotton due to lack of demand. I think these brands are just failing to take their responsibilities seriously. Otherwise, this gap between demand and supply wouldn’t be an issue. And the rankings also show that there is an increasing gap between companies that do take responsibility and those that don’t.

Your analysis makes it clear that while some progress has been made, there remains much to be done. But roughly three years in between was surely a long time for many to pull up their socks. Do you think there needs to be more pressure on brands to act on sustainable cotton?

In short, yes. We do think that more pressure / scrutiny is needed. And scrutiny is what we are trying to bring about with this ranking-by showing what’s the situation, who’s making an effort and who’s not-and at the same time, while bringing about the scrutiny, we are also here to support companies that are willing to improve. It has never been easy, but it is possible to make progress as some companies are showing. We are also here to help them.
Your analysis makes it clear that while some progress has been made, there remains much to be done. But roughly three years in between was surely a long time for many to pull up their socks. Do you think there needs to be more pressure on brands to act on sustainable cotton?

It has to be about engagement; it cannot be confrontation.

Yes, companies need support. They can learn from their peers; they can partner with civil society organisations. It is about the willingness. Yes, sustainability is a lot of work, but it’s possible.

Talking of willingness, it is extremely surprising that a third of all assessed companies (27) have no policy on cotton sustainability. Isn’t that extremely surprising?

Yes, it is disappointing. Policy is the first step towards sourcing sustainable cotton. It is probably not an easy one, but arguably it is the easiest. Also, after a few years of running this ranking, we see that all the companies that have adopted policies later have made progress in traceability and also uptake of sustainable cotton. So, policy remains an important first step.

Something on the methodology. Why did you decide to stick to the earlier three parameters (policy / uptake / traceability) as also the weightage?

It is the same; that’s true. First, we kept it the same because we did not receive any critical feedback on the methodology. It seems to have been quite well accepted. We still want to make uptake of sustainable cotton the centre stage in this ranking. Policy and traceability are very important but are more like groundwork. Ultimately, we will be judging companies by how much (of sustainable cotton) they are taking in. The advantage of keeping the methodology the same is that it allows for comparable results. It allows us to see if there is any progress, or not.

Why don’t you have a separate parameter on transparency? [I know this is mentioned / explained in the Methodology section]. Is it because you see all three parameters and results through the prism of transparency?

Yes, transparency is really underpinning the methodology. Companies only obtain points when we can verify the answer to a question from publicly available source(s). The reason why we think that transparency is so important is that companies can be held accountable. If you adopt a public policy, then everyone—from civil society to consumers—can then check the reports against these policies. Also, when you are transparent, you also become a leader. When you are transparent you share your experience about sustainability, and you may well inspire others.

But still enough, have you noticed discrepancies in the policies? [w.r.t “relatively few companies have policies on pesticides, water, biodiversity, human rights, and recycling”] Do you think the policies are robust and future-proof, at all?

There are companies that are doing less well (than others). Many companies address the subject of sustainability through sustainability standards of organisations that they are a member of. We think that’s great. But the reason why we have these specific questions on pesticides, etc, is that we want to make them think about these specific issues that are specific to cotton cultivation. Ultimately, we don’t want them to hide behind sustainability standards. We want them to be aware of the issues faced by farmers. This is what we consider a robust policy-when you go beyond just ticking a box (on a checklist) and adopting a sustainability standard, and are fully aware of what are the issues that need to be tackled at the farm level. 

In developing a policy, ideally you want the policy to be forward-looking and remain valid for as long as possible. At the same time, the definition of what’s sustainable is evolving, and is generally progressing towards a more demanding definition. Also, the reality on the ground is changing. In some countries the situation is improving, in some worsening. I think companies should be a bit agile with their policies and adapt to both increasing demands as well as changing realities on the ground.

The huge uptake gap was pointed out in SCR 2017 as well. Since enough sustainable cotton is available, why do you think there is such a gap? Is it because they are not serious enough? Is it because they don’t know where to find it? Is it because there is not enough pressure yet on them from customers?

There is this small but growing group of frontrunners that are leading the way. They have made commitments and things are starting to pay off. Then there are others who have not made commitments and the gap is increasing there as well. The reasons would be different for every company. We think that these reasons as to why they haven’t done so would be different for every company. Yet, the progress made by some others shows that this is possible.

Not surprisingly, all companies score relatively low on traceability. Do you think this is the weakest link?

It is definitely where companies get the lowest scores across the board. There are two reasons for that. One that is often invoked by companies is that tracing back your supply chain which is notoriously long and complicated in the textiles industry is a huge task. We recognise that, but also think that it is necessary to enable sustainable sourcing, not just about cotton but anything, if you are to be serious about sustainability. The other argument often made by companies is that publishing supply chain information can be commercially sensitive. Nevertheless, it is also a reality that increasingly civil society organisations as well as consumers are expecting it (i.e. expecting companies  to be transparent). It is an area where we will all have to work a bit harder.

The recommendations sound good, but shouldn’t there have been a deadline? The world is running out of time, and not enough progress has been made since 2017. Isn’t it right to put a timeframe to action?

It is a very fair question. Maybe it is not very clear—we do not have a timeframe, but we do have expectations. And our expectation from the beginning of the rankings was that companies should source 100 per cent sustainable cotton by the end of 2020. That would have been the best practice. We do know it is not going to happen... for many of them. Our expectation would still be 100 per cent sustainable cotton sourcing as soon as possible. But from the fast progress that we have seen from some companies, we know that it is possible... to go fast.
The recommendations sound good, but shouldn’t there have been a deadline? The world is running out of time, and not enough progress has been made since 2017. Isn’t it right to put a timeframe to action?

Why is it that 25 per cent sustainable cotton is sold so, and the rest as conventional cotton? The number was 21 per cent last time and there has surprisingly been an increase?

To the first bit (on why it is 25 per cent), it is a translation of the market level of the fact that too many companies are not sourcing sustainable cotton. So, there are a few leaders, but that is not enough to go beyond 25 per cent of the uptake at the market level. Then, in case of the increase from 21 per cent to 25 per cent is again a translation at the market level of the progress made by some companies. There are not enough of them—too many companies are not sourcing sustainable cotton. To go beyond this 25 per cent uptake, we need more companies. The increase (21–25) comes from the leader companies as well as smaller companies outside the ranking system.

Obvious question next: what happens to the balance 75 per cent?

It gets traded as conventional cotton. For example, in case of organic cotton, it doesn’t fetch the premium. And so, the premium doesn’t get back to the farmers in turn. It does not get the recognition of the work done by the farmers.

So, it could be that a company buys sustainable cotton without even knowing it?

Absolutely. And the sustainable cotton that companies might buy without knowing it—means that the farmers haven’t got the recognition. All these systems (Fairtrade, BCI, etc) have a way of recognising the farmer. And that’s what this ranking is really about. It’s about making sure farmers get signals from the market that there is demand for sustainable cotton. Or else why would they continue to go through the effort of farming more sustainably. Sure, it is better for them, and it is better for their environment. But farmers also want to get recognition of the work they do.
So, it could be that a company buys sustainable cotton without even knowing it?

Sourcing sustainable cotton is fine, but when sustainable cotton is only 5 per cent of all global cotton production, even if 100 per cent sustainable cotton were to be consumed by brands and manufacturers, it would not make much of a difference. Your comments?

Of course, there is a big space / scope for improvement. In terms of production it is 25 per cent if you look at just the supply side. And the demand is 5 per cent of the total production. The reason why we put so much emphasis on demand is that for so many years the emphasis was only on production or increasing production. And our vision is still that 100 per cent of all cotton is produced sustainably. This will only happen if there is demand. For many years civil society organisations have focused on growing the supply, and the demand had been lagging. So, we need to take the demand to a higher level. And only then can the supply continue increasing.

Here, demand would mean demand from 77 companies. Do you plan to expand your horizon? Just 77 companies would mean not much, even though there are big companies (adding to volumes).

You would have noticed that we have already expanded between 2016 and 2017. And we have on purpose included and looked at market leaders from Brazil, China, India, South Africa, etc. It was important to look at markets beyond Europe and the United States. There is room for including more companies from these countries. But that’s not the only thing. We need to evaluate this ranking and see whether it pushes companies to take action. Expanding would be nice.
Published on: 15/04/2020

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of